Which Windows shell replacement do you recommend?

ska April 25, 2010


I’ve been looking at different options to replace the Windows explorer / taskbar situation and I’ve come across a few options:

Emerge desktop
Enigma desktop (featured on Lifehacker)
LDE(X) and LiteSite

Now, I’m at a loss as to the stability and usefulness of these. Does anyone have any recommendations?


  1. Plerner88
    January 23, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    I have found the various flavors of BB4Win  -blackbox for windows the lightest and most versatile.

  2. Codenomics
    October 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    I dont know if the OP even checks this but....

    SharpEnviro is the way to go. It is still beta but they just wont go final until it is perfect, and development is slow. SharpE has come a long long way in the last couple years. 

    I am running Nix now, but I use #E to make my windows installs bearable when I have to use them.

  3. dutchman
    August 6, 2011 at 2:11 am

    I use EasyDesktop. It's like an old school menu program.

  4. Synaptiv
    April 19, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    BB4win is the best all others pale in comparison

  5. Dhaka
    March 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    aston shell is the best windows shell replacenment. it replaces everything, it's great............

  6. Dhaka
    March 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    recommend u to try aston shell shell replacement. it changes desktop, explorer, and start menu etc. it's great............

  7. Deskex
    January 10, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Let me recommend you to try Taskbow taskbar replacement.
    It groups tasks by process name, you can reorder it by mouse and color them.

  8. ~koolkid15
    July 13, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Cairoshell is the best shell for Windows, its so sexy :)


  9. seslisohbets
    May 27, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    There is only one replacement I rest my penguin!

  10. Breathwork
    May 23, 2010 at 6:12 am

    There is only one replacement - UBUNTU... I rest my penguin!

    • Johan Klos
      May 23, 2010 at 6:40 am

      actually, Ubuntu is an OS, so that'd make it an OS alternative, not a shell replacement.

      • Bobby
        May 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm

        There are numerous ones available, but the best shell replacement I've found is SharpE

        The shell replacement is still undergoing some fine tuning but still remains quite operational and useable

        Also, it doesn't need installing, simply run the program from the folder, choose SharpE as your default shell and viola!

        :) And most of all, it's free and opensource, so changes can be made and you can make it better and more suited to your needs...

        The program supports x64 and x86 versions of Windows, has multiple Virtual screens and includes full functionality with Windows Vista and it's many functions

        • Johan Klos
          May 24, 2010 at 7:12 am

          I've tried SharpE a couple of years ago, not sure why I stopped using it, but it wasn't as flexible as LiteStep.
          All the benefits you name can be applied to LiteStep as well. However, I do think that SharpE is a bit more user-friendly than LiteStep, although well made themes in LiteStep can make LS very user-friendly as well. Case in point, a (though dated) theme I made: http://www.shell-shocked.org/article.php?id=96

  11. Versatile
    May 22, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    I love this post. I have tried everything. Emerge desktop, aston shell, litestep, cairo desktop, talisman desktop, and more that I can't remember.

    I love Windows 7, so I don't want to miss the aero interface with the Emerge Desktop.

    However, for my netbook Asus 701SD series, it runs XP and I run Emerge Desktop on it exclusively. I try to be as minimalistic on all my PCs. I run portable apps, and Launchy is my bread and butter to access every single program on my computers. Throw in dropbox, and you are in heaven.

  12. Johan
    May 21, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Litestep, it's actually a shell replacement and not just a file browser. Or am I reading the article wrong?
    Anyway, some links:
    etc etc, really, just google :D

    • el tio ska
      May 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm

      Thanks. Actually I'd come across LiteStep, emerge Desktop and the Enigma Desktop among others. What I was looking for was personal opinions and recommendations.

      In the end I installed emerge Desktop on my Win xp computer and left my win 7 computer with the explorer shell (for the time being). I'm very happy with emerge, am still unsure whether to install it over win 7 for some reason!

      • Johan Klos
        May 22, 2010 at 6:37 pm

        Well, I like LiteStep, though I haven't used it in a bit. It's modular, so you can add and remove functionality as you wish. It's open source and completely free as well, so yeah. The main draw-back is that it's not monkey-proof, ie, not for novices. But with a little bit of common sense and text editing (just renamed .txt files to configure it all) and you'll have your own theme in no time!Another is the fact that it doesn't have 64-bit, only 32-bit.I daresay that LiteStep can do anything and everything that Emerge can. You'll only need to find the right module :DLook here for some modules out there, to give you an idea of the possibilities:http://www.ls-themes.org/modulesIn the unlikely event that there is no module for what you want, here's a tutorial to code your own ;)
        *update: 32-bit, no separate 64-bit, though it works on 64-bit systems.

        • el tio ska
          May 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm

          LiteStep does look interesting, however since there's no 32-bit version it's a no go on this computer!

        • Johan Klos
          May 23, 2010 at 6:24 pm

          whoops, no 64-bit, only 32-bit is what I meant to say.
          Though it will (of course) work on 64-bit systems, only, yeah, in 32-bit mode :D

          sorry about the confusion

  13. Anonymous
    May 10, 2010 at 6:21 pm


    There is a help file - Emerge DesktopdocumentationEmerge Desktop.chm.

    And a VERY friendly Forum: [no longer available]
    Good luck!

    - Jeff

    • el tio ska
      May 12, 2010 at 12:31 pm

      Cool, thanks :o) Seems like I overlooked the documentation folder, oops!

  14. Th0m5k
    May 10, 2010 at 4:55 am

    Total Commander works for me. Has for the longest time!

  15. el tio ska
    May 9, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    I've been running emerge for the past week or so and am very happy so far. Customised a few things and in general it's ok. I'm not sure that it's necessarily faster than explorer but I sure like the clean desktop look and the emergeMenu.

    Thanks for sharing your story! I might take a look at Rainmeter but I'm not too keen on using too many programs ... in the end it might be counter-productive to eliminating Windows' own explorer as shell for something faster!

    Re Win+R: I love that shortcut and was constantly using it. But it can be activated when using Emerge as well. Here's how:

    1) From the emergeMenu go to Settings > Edit Launch Applets
    2) Make sure that you add emergeHotkeys.exe
    3) Then fire up the Hotkeys program (Shift+Esc)
    4) In the window that appears:
    - click on the icon with a "+" sign,
    - choose the key combination,
    - click on the "Command" radio button,
    - and choose the command you want

    From here I also set Ctrl+Win to launch the emergeMenu that otherwise is called up by right-clicking on the desktop. (I chose Ctrl-Win coz I got used to this shortcut from Linux Mint.)

    I also set the shortcut Win+E to fire up the file manager since I had gotten used to it.

    @ Jeff:

    Thanks for the comment. However I must comment that the virtual desktop applet caused me some distress and I disabled it. I'm running RocketDock on auto-hide on the left-hand side of the screen and Rainlendar vertical on the other side. With the virtual desktops these were going bonkers: moving around when I switch workspace, etc.

    One question if I may: could you shed any light on the applets? As I was looking for info online but there seems to be no manual or anything.

    cheers dudes!

  16. Anonymous
    May 9, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    Nothing beats Emerge Desktop! I've been using it for several years on XP.

    As for the "RUN" command, there is an optional clock/command input right on the desktop (the emergecommand applet). And a built-in dock (the emergelauncher applet). And a system performance monitor (the emergesysmon applet).

    Not to mention the virtual desktops, the hotkeys, etc., etc.

    If you MUST run Windows and not Linux or Android, then Emerge Desktop eases the pain!

    - Jeff

  17. Beto
    May 6, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I just stumbled on your post and actually I started using Emerge about two weeks ago. I use in combination with RocketDock (for apps), Launchy (for keyboard quick start apps), and Rainmeter (which can help solve your clock problem and is easier than Samurize) so hopefully my experience can be helpful for you.

    Emerge is pretty cool with some caveats.
    1) EmergeTray and Emerge Tasks are really nice looking and convenient. You can move them wherever and size them accordingly, you can hide certain items from the tray. You lose the ability to see the names of running apps that you have in the windows task bar, but the icons are usually enough.

    1) Not having a desktop cluttered is great, until you "just need to throw a file somewhere quick." Keeping the desktop clean is one thing, but not being able to put anything there ever is another. After a few weeks, I'm adjusting and using a "downloads" folder for most quick downloaded files.

    2) My biggest complaint probably has to be the loss of Windows+R for the run command. You can still access Run by right-clicking on the desktop with Emerge, but frankly this is annoying, and mainly why I installed Launchy. It sounds like you have a shortcut program anyways so not a big deal.

    3) You can easily use windows search. The new windows desktop search (WDS4) is part of explorer, so no explorer means no search. You can right click on a folder and use the old windows search, but that isn't much good.

    One telling sign about Emerge is that after rebooting with explorer recently, I looked around and decided that the cleanness of Emerge was worth the few drawbacks.

    Relatedly, with Emerge installed I found it helpful to use Rainmeter as well, which has convenient "skins" (think gadgets) for RSS feeds, clocks, iTunes / Winamp player info, etc. The default appearance theme is pretty nice looking as well.

    Good luck!

    • Aibek
      May 6, 2010 at 8:13 am


      Thanks for sharing your experiences with Emerge, I am sure many will
      find it helpful.


    • Johan Klos
      May 22, 2010 at 6:45 pm

      I just stumbled on your post and actually I started using Emerge about two weeks ago. I use in combination with RocketDock (for apps), Launchy (for keyboard quick start apps), and Rainmeter (which can help solve your clock problem and is easier than Samurize) so hopefully my experience can be helpful for you.
      LiteStep can do all of the things those apps do, using modules.
      Rainmeter actually started as a LiteStep module :D : http://www.ls-themes.org/modules/rainmeter

  18. el tio ska
    April 28, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I'm using winxp and like to maintain my desktop mainly free and have the "full screen" always available. I currently achieved this using:

    Nexus dock: this serves instead of the taskbar, includes a system tray and successfully hides the taskbar. I have it at the bottom and on auto-hide to access it only when needed.

    Rocket Dock: I have this on the left side of the screen with some favourites for quick access. It is also on auto-hide.

    (Rainlendar: I have this sitting on the desktop simply to have a calendar handy.)

    Humanized Enso: This cool little app sits hiding in the background until you hit the caps lock key and it serves as a "command line" style shortcut - to call programs using keyborard shortcuts. I'm finding this little app addictive and it might make the Rocket Dock on the side redundant.

    The features I currently lack include a clock - which I think can be had with Samurize but am not sure whether to install yet another program - and multiple desktops/workspaces.
    Now there is desktop x but I found that it was having conflicts. Emerge Desktop seems to have multiple desktops/workspaces natively. And apparently it takes us less resources - reflected in time to load.

    In the end, I dunno what's best. I'm gonna give Emerge a shot and put updates here :o)

    cheers to you

  19. el tio ska
    April 27, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Cheers dudes.

    I currently use the infamous Explorer as a file manager - it's not the most excellent thing but I don't really complain. Sure, a two-window and a tabbed interface are highly desirable. But apart from that, I am very much used to the tree structure and I activate the "address bar" in explorer so I can access my files n' folders by typing in the address. I find that in Explorer this address bar is more comfortable than in Total Commander, for example.

    For alternatives I am trying Free Commander, Ultra Explorer and Cubic Explorer, and liking Free Commander best of all three.

    However what I'm looking at is a replacement for the shell, not the file manager. So I'm looking at the options there. I think I'm gonna settle on Emerge Desktop. Will test it out and keep you updated over the coming weeks!

    • el tio ska
      April 27, 2010 at 11:10 am

      (update) i'm "ska" from above. Created a disqus account when posting the comment and it seems that the "ska" username was taken!

    • Anonymous
      April 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm

      Ups, sorry then, I was thinking just in explorer replacements. Right now I'm quite content with the Windows 7 shell, the taskbar is really useful and with an improved usability, and if you like "eyecandy" you have a lot :-)

      In the other hand I'm not pretty sure about the benefits of a shell replacement as you're adding another "layer" of software, so performance would decrease. Which benefits are you looking for with another shell?


      • PJ
        May 31, 2010 at 4:57 am

        Shell replacements such as the three mentioned by the OP do not sit on top of explorer.exe (explorer.exe is the default shell, as well as being a file manager).

        Instead, they _replace_ the default shell, meaning that if coded well, performance is as good, if not better than the default Windows shell.

        To the OP, have you looked at Litestep http://www.litestep.net/

        While it's not the easiest one to get going, it has been around for many, many years. As a result, it is mature, efficient, highly customisable and there's a very large community of users to tap into.

        HTH, PJ

        • Johan Klos
          May 31, 2010 at 7:54 am

          actually yes, I did mention Litestep and his reply seems to indicate that he did look at Litestep, if you read some of the other comments :D

  20. Anonymous
    April 26, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I love xplorer2, in fact I'm a registered user of its professional version, it has lots of possibilities and you would hardly use the windows explorer again.

    Another option I've tried and I find really interesting is Directory Opus, but for me it's a bit too expensive (and with too many options I would hardly use).

  21. Aibek
    April 26, 2010 at 7:30 am


    I haven't tried any of the above one but did you check out the Xplorer2 Lite. It's free and has lots of cool features. We have also mentioned as a top choice in The 5 Good Free Windows File Managers.

    Alternatively, you should also check out the free extensions that are available for generic Windows Explorer.

    - 7 Windows Explorer Addons for Power Users

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